A road-weary Notre Dame team awoke in South Bend Wednesday at the outset of a much-needed respite -- seven days without a basketball game.
At 10-3 and in second-place in the ACC, the Irish have played at least two more contests (Duke, North Carolina) or three more (Virginia, Louisville) than their quartet of peers contending for the conference championship.
Each of the four squads above will play two games before Notre Dame takes the court again to host Wake Forest next Wednesday, and while opponent outcomes and an inevitable tightening league race is out of their control, the following threesome of recommendations is not:
1.) REENERGIZE AUGUSTE
Amid the horror of Notre Dame's 40 minutes of intimidation and subsequent annihilation inside Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday afternoon, Irish junior forward Zach Auguste attempted to secure an early second-half rebound following a missed Duke free throw attempt.
The ball instead escaped his grasp and trickled out of bounds. With Notre Dame trailing by 20 at the time (or maybe it was 30 or 40 points, I lost track), it was an irrelevant turnover, but it elicited a sing-song, sardonic chant from the lathered up Blue Devils student body:
"You let the whoooooooooole team down. You let the whoooooooole team down," they sang.
While not technically accurate, Auguste's intermittent disappearing acts -- either due to avoidable foul trouble, skittishness near the rim, or an inherent indifference for rebounding -- are a cause for post-season concern for Mike Brey's height-challenged Irish.
In short, he's too good to play so tentatively. Too tall to so often come up short.
At six-foot-ten, 245 pounds, Auguste prefers to be listed as a forward rather than a center. That's fine, because centers block shots, defend the low block, and clear the defensive glass, and Auguste -- the forward -- ranks second behind an under six-foot-five baseball pitcher for the team lead in both rebounds and blocked shots.
He scored two points (1 of 8 shooting) and secured five rebounds without a blocked shot during Notre Dame's two-game road trip, that on the heels of a 16-point effort vs. Boston College, 12 points and seven boards on the road vs. Pittsburgh, and 14 points with six rebounds in a win over Duke.
At his best, Auguste finishes at the rim following pick-and-rolls and in transition (on difficult catches, to boot) and augments the potent Irish offense with quality post passing skills. (His two assists Tuesday night at Clemson both came courtesy beautiful back door bounce passes.)
At his maddening worst, Auguste shot fakes against 6'1" guards (as he did Tuesday at Clemson) and sits for the final 16 minutes of 3a 0-point blowout loss at Duke while his teammates fight the uphill battle alone.
He's too talented to suffer an end-season swoon in his junior season. Plug him back in. Do something to get and keep his attention. Because with a hole in the middle, Notre Dame has no chance of winning two tournament games, either in Greensboro, or the one the matters most thereafter.
The domino effect of an absent Auguste -- the team's "should-be" fourth-best player -- is too great for Brey's seven-man rotation to overcome.
Which reminds me...
2.) BE OPEN TO AN EIGHTH
It's clear Notre Dame's unique and efficient offense is predicated on the presence of five threats sharing the court simultaneously. For the better part of three months, Notre Dame's quintet of starters that can move, catch, dribble, pass, and shoot with aplomb has forced foes to adjust their method of defensive attack.
Opponents have gone small to match Notre Dame quickness and movement, which has largely equaled an advantage for the Irish.
Opponents however are also realizing that Notre Dame's glass is largely unguarded.
-- Pittsburgh: 27 of 45 on two-point shot attempts. The Panthers scored 28 points in the paint including a driving game-winner late.
-- Duke: 42 points in the paint, a ludicrous 10 of 13 on two-point shots in the first half when the game was won. The Blue Devils missed just 20 shots and still managed 12 offensive boards.
-- Clemson: The ACC's worst shooting team finished 19 of 39 on two-point field goal attempts and collected 13 offensive boards (a 38-26 advantage overall).
The Irish rank 298th out of 351 teams in terms of percentage of points allowed on two-point field goals. On occasion, one more athlete is needed. Not enough to upset the offensive machine's apple cart, but to at least mitigate damage near Notre Dame's rim.
The best apparent option for Brey is to commit to a pair of two-minute segments in the first half for freshman forward Austin Torres -- a player with no delusions of grandeur that he should be allowed to shoot anything other than pick-and-roll layups and dunks or put-backs -- and another two minutes for him before the 12-minute mark of the second stanza.
If Torres responds well as he did vs. Purdue (neutral), Michigan State (at home) and Georgia Tech (on the road), you've found a potential spark -- an eighth man -- for tournament play.
If he instead disrupts the offense's precious flow, you've still stolen some minutes for weary starters and likely grabbed a few rebounds and won a defensive possession or two along the way.
Notre Dame won't win two tournament game (ACC or NCAA) because it's the better of two teams at protecting the rim and cleaning the glass -- but they can mitigate the damage that has been, and will likely be inflicted on its recently unprotected paint.
3.) JACKSON ON THE BALL…ON OCCASION
Jerian Grant is well on his way to producing the best individual season by a Notre Dame player since David Rivers' graduation following the 1988 season.
He's the straw that stirs the drink offensively, creating, finishing, bailing them out as the shot-clock winds down, breaking defenses down, making the key decisions in crunch time.
You name it, Grant can do it on the offensive end, and defensively, he's adept at knowing when to go for steals, when to help out attempting to block shots at the rim, and when to settle in vs. a top opposing guard in the half-court.
He can do it all, except no one can do it all -- not for 40 minutes per game vs. top tier competition, and that's what the Irish face in upcoming games against Syracuse, at Louisville, the ACC Tournament, and NCAA Tournament thereafter.
Enter Demetrius Jackson, another player that Brey noted earlier this season had become adept at attacking the defense. The occasional flat ball screen that allows Jackson to attack can afford Grant something he rarely enjoys -- an open look.
As remarkable as Grant's offensive efficiency numbers (his 59.4 percent 2-point FG% coupled with a 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio standout as a unique pairing) is the creator's degree of difficulty on shots made. Fade-aways, step backs, heavy contact drives -- they're a consistent aspect of Grant's repertoire.
It would likely help Grant in crunch time if some of the early-game heavy lifting is put in Jackson's seemingly capable hands.
The ball will always end up in possession of college basketball's best guard when it matters most.